Cars approach the San Ysidro Port of Entry from Tijuana, May 18, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Anyone planning to cross the border between San Diego and Tijuana this holiday season can add waiting in longer than usual lines to their to-do lists. 

The San Ysidro Port of Entry on the U.S.-Mexico border, one of the busiest land ports of entry in the world, saw more than 5.5 million crossings between November and December last year. 

Those months — as California and Baja residents travel back and forth across the border for holiday shopping, family celebrations and vacation travel — tend to be some of the busier months at that port of entry and others along the southwest border. 

But this year in particular could prove to be a challenging holiday season for border crossers, according to Joaquin Luken, executive director of Smart Border Coalition

What we know from historical data:

While many frequent border crossers have come to expect long waits heading into the U.S. from Tijuana, there has been recent outcry over waits in excess of two hours going south across the border. 

Infrastructure and technology developments on the Tijuana side of the border have meant longer wait times than normal to get into Mexico, according to Luken. 

“As a community, we’re really concerned on how the holiday season is going to impact (that),” Luken said. 

To make your travel a little smoother this year, here are some tips for crossing during the holiday season: 

‘Know before you go’

Luken said it’s important for travelers to know what kind of traveler they are and have their travel documents ready. 

There are four types of lanes travelers can take to get into the U.S. – general lanes, SENTRI lanes, Ready lanes and the medical lane – and each has different requirements. Crossers should figure out which lanes they can use and what documents they’ll need before arriving at the border.

Travelers should also keep in mind state and federal restrictions on what they can bring back into the U.S. and declare all items, Luken said.Travelers can be fined or otherwise penalized for bringing back restricted items. 

Being ready as you approach the booths can make a big difference.

The holiday season can bring out travelers who don’t cross the border often and are using passport books or birth certificates as identification, which slows down the line, Luken said. 

“They have to have their documents ready, have their windows open because everything speeds up the line,” he said. “Every little thing, every little process, every little thing counts.” 

Smart Border Coalition has a detailed breakdown for what to know when crossing back into the U.S. that includes information on which lane to use and what you can and cannot bring back. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, also has its own breakdowns for crossing back into the country, including bringing food or other items, clearing security and travel documents for foreigners

Plan for long waits 

It’s hard to predict the “magic hour” when waits to cross the border are the shortest, Luken said, especially during the holidays when waits drag out throughout the entire day. 

In general, Luken said, avoiding rush hours including early mornings and late afternoons can save time in line. 

But there are some tools at travelers’ disposal. 

A smartphone app called Border Traffic offers video footage of both northbound and southbound border lines that crossers can use to guess wait times. The app costs $1.99 for a monthly subscription.

A handful of Facebook groups provide a platform for travelers to post questions and answers in real time about the border line. There are groups for southbound and northbound travel

Heading south: 

Caltrans provides current wait times for drivers heading south into Tijuana through the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry. 

Luken recommends using a combination of sources to assess current waits at the border heading in either direction. And because of the increased wait times heading south, Luken said to avoid heading crossing into Mexico from San Diego after 3 p.m. 

Heading north: 

CBP provides the current wait times through its smartphone app to get into the U.S. for all ports of entry for general, Ready and SENTRI lanes, how the wait compares to the average for that day of the week and the number of lanes open. 

CBP also has data on the average wait times in 2022 for the weeks surrounding certain holidays for each U.S. port of entry. 

inewsource examined last year’s wait times for general lanes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which may help travelers plan their trips. 

  • Best bet around Thanksgiving: Wait times during that holiday week tend to have dropped before 7 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, and after 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Best bet around Christmas: The shortest wait times were before 8 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Dec. 26, and after 7 p.m. on the days leading up to Christmas. 

Check out CBP’s website for more detailed historical data. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...